PROVO — If somebody had saved your life, what would you do in return? That’s the fundamental question behind Larry Shue‘s comedy The Nerd. Playing now at the Covey Center for the Arts, advertisements for The Nerd claim that it is “The summer’s funniest play!” Unfortunately, this production falls far short of that claim.
The Nerd tells the story of Willum Cubbert, an up-and-coming architect, whose life was saved ten years before in Vietnam by Rick Steadman. Because of the circumstances of the incident, Willum has never met Rick. So, when Rick announces that he’s going to show up at Willum’s apartment, the latter brims with excitement. Unfortunately, Rick is… well, a nerd in every way: socially awkward, unappealing, and even wearing thick glasses. Rick soon overstays his welcome, but even after six days (and at a great cost to Willum’s professional and personal life) Willum feels that he would be racked with guilt if he evicted Rick from his apartment.
The problem with The Nerd is that the show languishes without purpose. Stuffed with dated references, old-fashioned sitcom humor, and a predictable ending, Shue’s script is not aging well. For example, Rick’s story of his “sweet” proposal to an 8-year-old girl is now a very unfunny, disgusting moment. Another distasteful bit of dialogue occurs when some characters make jokes about trying to shoot down planes, an exchange that has the double misfortune of Shue’s untimely death in a 1985 plane crash and modern incidents of terrorism on airlines.
This particular production also suffers from purposeless directing choices from Reese Purser. During the first act, when Rick is invading Willum’s apartment during a party, Purser never gave his actors reasons for why their characters would not just politely leave the apartment. As a result, many of the characters just seemed masochistic for choosing to expose themselves to Rick’s grating personality. Purser’s best directing involves physical comedy, and I chuckled at images of adults with paper bags over their heads or Rick’s concentration while he practices playing his tambourine. However, these moments were too rare, and between them are often long spaces where the actors spiritlessly recited lines in an effort to make it to the next joke.
Dylan Wright plays Willum as an affable gentleman with deep loyalty that serves as the source for Willum’s emotional angst towards Rick. Wright’s boyish charm and agreeable demeanor made it realistic that Willum’s apartment would serve as a social center for his friends and colleagues. Wright’s strongest moments were when he was recounting how Rick saved his life (which made Willum a little verklempt) and the way he practiced confronting Rick. Clara Richardson portrays Tansy McGinnis—Willum’s longtime female friend—well, and it was nice to see the character’s feminine conflict of trying to follow her career while having a fulfilling personal life. McGinnis and Wright also have an enjoyable chemistry between them. (The program says that the two are engaged, so building that emotional connection was probably not very hard.)
As Rick Steadman, Andrew Groome injected energy into his scenes and played the stereotypical nerd nicely. Rick’s obvious responses to the other characters’ discomfort was one of the few consistent sources of humor. Taycen Timothy‘s portrayal of Axel Hammond was harder to swallow, though. The character’s detached commentary on the situations he observes is supposed to be witty, but in the first act these comments felt like barbed sarcasm that alienated me from Axel. (I found myself asking, “Why would anyone want this person in their living room?”) However, Timothy’s performance improved as the script gave the character more to do than just hang around Willum’s home.
One drawback of this production was April Lewis’s costume designs, most of which would have been out of place in the early 1980’s. Tansy’s blouses, with their high collars, longs sleeves, and decorated fronts were the most faithful to the period. But for the men, only their ties were reminiscent of the 1980’s. Poor Warnock “Ticky” Waldrgrave (played by Jacob Baird) wore suits that were in style in about 2005, and Thor Waldgrave (played by Luke Belnap) wore 1990’s carpenter jeans with a modern “Gamer 4 Life” shirt and leather jacket.
On the other hand, I appreciated set design, which is the most elaborate I have ever seen in the Covey Center’s black box. The wood paneling on the bottom fourth of the upstage wall (naturally, for the 1980’s), and the contemporary art on the walls seemed fitting for an architect’s apartment. Plus, the fire in the fireplace was a nice touch. The set designer was uncredited, though. (Perhaps it was technical director Pam Davis?)
But a nice set, some serviceable performances, and a few funny moments here and there are not enough to salvage The Nerd. As an end to the busy Utah summer theatre season, this show can easily be skipped, unless someone involved with it saved your life.